The bleak outlook for the French nuclear industry

The long-awaited World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2022 focuses on French nuclear power plants. Sad observation and gloomy outlook.

The World Nuclear Status Report 2022 (WNSIR2022) is a 366-page tome packed with figures and sketches compiled by the world’s leading experts under the leadership of Mycle Schneider. According to this landmark document, 411 nuclear reactors were in operation in 33 countries as of July 1, 2022, four fewer than in mid-2021. The current global fleet has a total net rated electrical capacity of 369 GW, which is just above the previous record of 367 GW in 2006.

French fleet in trouble

In France, electricity accounted for 24.5% of final energy in 2021. With nuclear power plants providing 69% of the electricity, as in 2020, they covered 17% of the final energy in 2021. The largest share was covered by fossil fuels with oil at 42% and natural gas at 20%, while renewables contributed only 11%.
The discovery in December 2021 of cracks in the emergency core cooling systems led to the shutdown of France’s four largest (1,450 MW) and newest reactors, the report finds. This event represented an unexpected loss of nearly 6 GW of capacity in mid-winter, when consumption peaks in France, more than in any other European country. Subsequently, it turned out that some of the 1,300 MW reactors – there are 20 of them – also show similar symptoms and, as of mid-2022, 12 reactors are shut down indefinitely. It remains to be seen to what extent the problem affects the 900 MW reactors – 32 units.
It is therefore urgent to refurbish the fleet, especially as the energy crisis is becoming unbearable for businesses and households alike.

Experienced welders are rare

But inspection techniques are time-consuming and it was not until the end of July 2022 that the French nuclear safety authority (ASN) judged EDF’s inspection strategy to be “appropriate in view of the knowledge acquired about the phenomenon and the corresponding safety issues”.
When defects are detected, it takes time to manufacture and replace parts. Experienced high-level nuclear welders are rare – there are many more simultaneous challenges for these specialists on the French nuclear fleet, including the EPR construction site in Flamanville – and the work involves significant radiation doses that could quickly lead to regulatory exposure limits. As there have already been cases where several cracked pieces of piping have had to be replaced per reactor, inspection and repair will take time. EDF intends to inspect the entire fleet of only 56 reactors by 2025.

Price catch-up in 2023

Following the discovery of the corrosion problem, on January 13, 2022, EDF published a revised downward forecast for nuclear generation, and the French government announced the same day that it would force EDF to supply its competitors with 20 percent more electricity, at fixed prices, than planned-120 TWh instead of 100 TWh-to limit the effect of soaring market prices on the consumer…and to keep potential voters happy before the April 2022 presidential election and the June 2022 parliamentary election. This measure limited the increase in the regulated tariff to 4% instead of more than 40%, but the tariffs will have to be made up in 2023.

The day after EDF announced a cut in production forecasts and the government’s consumption subsidy, the company’s shares fell by 15%, and on January 17, 2022, the rating agency Standard & Poor’s placed EDF on negative watch, estimating that the combined effect of these developments could reduce EDF’s earnings in 2022 by €10-13 billion.

”A disaster for France!”

This latest technical problem affecting the French nuclear fleet comes on top of a series of excessive shutdowns for maintenance, repair and refitting, accumulating half or more of the reactors shut down mostly in the first half of the year.
In May and June of 2022, availability never exceeded half of installed nuclear capacity and even dropped to one-third. The worst is yet to come when electric space heating drives up consumption in winter. “The current low production of the French nuclear park could prove to be a disaster for France,” writes a commentator in the business daily Les Echos under the headline “Power cuts: inform the French!”

All these new problems for an industry already under strain did not prevent the French president from making a historic speech on February 10, 2022, hailing a “renaissance of French nuclear power.” While current legislation calls for the closure of a dozen reactors through 2035 and the reduction of nuclear’s share of the electricity mix to 50%, the President wants “six EPR2s to be built and for us to launch studies for the construction of eight additional EPR2s.”
For the moment, the EPR2 does not even exist on the drawing board; no detailed design is yet available. The government administration estimated in October 2021 in an internal memo that 19 million engineering hours still need to be deployed to move from the “basic design” stage to the “detailed design” stage and that, if all goes well, the first EPR2 could start up by 2039-2040.

EDF: a 65 billion euro debt

The government had asked EDF to “prepare a complete file with the nuclear industry on a program to renew nuclear facilities in France”. EDF has “begun to prepare economic and industrial proposals based on EPR2 technology”. However, EDF made it clear in its 2021 annual report that “no investment decision has yet been taken, and the program will require appropriate regulatory and financial arrangements.

Meanwhile, according to some estimates, EDF’s projected net debt could reach €65 billion ($67.9 billion) by the end of 2022. Union officials have warned that the company “may not make it through the year.” In early July 2022, the government announced that it would fully renationalize EDF (it currently owns 84%).
After the avalanche of disastrous news in recent years, EDF shares had plunged below €8, less than a tenth of the 2007 peak, recovered a bit due to the nationalization announcement, and remained just below the announced takeover bid of €12 per share.

The worst is yet to come!

However, analysts and commentators were quick to say that nationalization would not solve EDF’s problems. As the business daily Les Echos puts it: “What is needed to save EDF is a complete transformation to gain in flexibility and efficiency. However, for forty years, the State shareholder has never demonstrated that it was capable of transforming mammoths into gazelles.”

After the worst performance in decades, the worst is yet to come

Until the closure of France’s two oldest units at Fessenheim in the spring of 2020, France’s nuclear fleet had remained stable for 20 years, with the exception of the closure of the 250 MW Phénix breeder reactor in 2009 and two LTO units during the 2015-2017 period.

No new reactor has started up since Civaux-2 was connected to the French grid in 1999. The first and only PWR closed before Fessenheim was the 300 MW Chooz-A reactor, which was taken out of service in 1991. The other closures involved eight first-generation natural uranium gas-graphite reactors, two fast neutron reactors and a small prototype heavy water reactor.

In 2021, the 56 operating reactors produced 360.7 TWh, an increase of 7.5 percent over the previous year, but still below the 2019 level and the sixth consecutive year in which production remained below 10 percent.

In 2005, nuclear generation peaked at 431.2 TWh. It took the fleet five years to reach this peak output, and with installed nuclear capacity nearly stable between late 1999 and early 2020, performance dropped after 2015 (see Figure 25).

In 2021, nuclear plants provided 69% (+1.9 percentage points) of the country’s electricity after the exceptional plunge in 2020, remaining below the 2019 level, however. According to RTE, the nuclear share peaked in 2005 at 78.3%. The outlook for 2022 is bleak. After several downward revisions, in mid-2022, EDF’s estimates of annual production are between 280 and 300 TWh, a figure not reached since 1990.
Monthly production has continued to deteriorate in 2022, with lower production in each month of the first half of the year than in any year in the last decade.
The French nuclear industry is adrift.